Mike Tucker is a Visual Effects Designer specialising in miniature effects. He has a long association with Doctor Who dating back to the classic series where he worked on many episodes during the Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy eras. When the series returned in 2005, Mike become the Model Unit supervisor responsible for a number of impressive effects including the spectacular destruction of Big Ben in Aliens of London. More recently his company, The Model Unit, won a BAFTA Craft Award for the miniature effects work in The Day of the Doctor. We are delighted that Mike has agreed to give us his unique insights into the making of David Tennant’s first season. Here he share his memories of working on The Christmas Invasion.
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The Model Unit Team: (Left to right) Mike Garrod, Alan Brannan, Nick Kool, Mike Tucker, Peter Tyler, Ian Robson, Phil Baker, Mark Holt, Edward Yates. 

WhoSFX: Is it true you were originally lined up to handle the shots involving the Gherkin skyscraper?

Mike: Yes, when the script arrived it had identified the windows of the Gherkin blowing out as a model shot. I think that Russell wanted an iconic shot similar to Big Ben being destroyed from Series One, and I left the planning meeting with that on my slate of effects to achieve. Once I started looking at the practicalities, however, it became obvious very quickly that it was going to be a horrendously expensive thing to do. For one thing the building is curved, and not only that it tapers so we would have had to shape every piece of glass individually. The second problem was getting glass thin enough. There is a limit to how thin you can get resin glass made, and that in turn meant we would have to build the model at a large scale, resulting in a colossal miniature.

We did briefly toy with me building a close up section of the Gherkin – maybe two or three floors – and letting The Mill handle the wide shots, but that doubling up of effort didn’t make sense, especially given how brief that sequence is in the final programme.

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The 1:6 scale model on the Unit 2 stage at Kendal Avenue.

WhoSFX: Can you tell us about the huge model you built for the sequence of the windows blowing out on the London tower block?

What DID remain on my list was all the windows being blown out of Rose’s tower block. It made a lot more sense for us to do that, and the model itself was cost effective because there was a lot of repeatability in the design of the real building. I originally looked at constructing it at 1/4 scale, but in the end we dropped to 1/6th to make it more manageable, and to avoid having to shoot in a taller studio space. The basic structure was MDF, pre-cut into strips and assembled by myself, Alan Brannan and Nick Kool. We then had windows CNC cut from styrene and balcony frames welded up. The glass was sourced from a company specialising in glass slides for scientific use, and that was then toughened so that it would shatter into tiny pieces rather than just crack. Once we had this kit of parts then we could just work our way from room to room, adding details like blinds, curtains, satellite dishes and miniature Christmas decorations.

On the day of the shoot Mark Holt wired detonators to each individual piece of glass, and we then clad the rear of each window with relatively crude interior dressing – just foam core boxes with differed coloured paper on the inside faces. The pyros were set off using Mark’s computer controlled firing box so that we could set the timing precisely. We shot on three cameras for the destruction itself, including a Photo-Sonics camera so that we could shoot at extremely high speed. 

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Alan Brannan fixes balcony detail to the model prior to filming.

WhoSFX: Were you happy with the end result?

Mike: Very. It cuts in seamlessly to the rest of the sequence. Although there was rather too much post production camera shake for my liking! 

Thank you Mike.

We’ll be hearing more from Mike in the near future. You can find out more about his amazing company,The Model Unit, here: http://www.themodelunit.co.uk/

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